exercise and the single woman

by caitlin meredith

After a summer of five-times-a-week Pilates sessions, I took a vacation. Though I went on a few hikes, my focus was on catching up with friends and family in California, not on my alignment or core strength. No problem, I thought. I was sure that all of the time and attention I had put into my fitness entitled me to time off for good behavior. In my mind, the hundreds of roll ups and rollovers and Pilates push-ups were like money in the bank. Now it was my holidays and time to cash in. I was wrong.

Halfway through my first class back in Austin – a class I had gone to religiously for months – I felt like I was going to throw up. The second day was no better. I asked if they had really amped things up in my absence. I got a puzzled look back, “No…this is what we always do.” Walking to my car that day, still feeling ill from my output, I had the profound realization that being in shape is like having a chronic disease. Like diabetes, there is no cure or final success. There is no such thing as money in your fitness bank. It’s something you’ll have to manage for the rest of your life. And even though I’m loving the Pilates (except when I’m hating it) I had a second profound realization: That sucks.

My grandmother just died at age 103. If those long-life genes prevail, my fitness commitment could stretch into the next 65 plus years, paying higher recovery costs with each hiatus. That’s longer than my mortgage!

My relationship with physical fitness has fluctuated through the years.  I either make a routine and thread it through my daily life or I spend double that exercise time feeling guilty about how out of shape I am without ever actually lacing up the Nikes. When I’m fitting in the getting fit I can’t imagine how I could’ve survived the last slothful phase. Did I really get through the week without my morning walk or seeing my bicep? But, honestly, other than the guilt and anxiety, not exercising isn’t that bad. (I was about to write that I probably read more during those periods but I’m just trying to make myself look better.) I know it’s not healthy, but I’m just saying on a day-to-day level, once I get used to it, life seems pretty normal without breaking a sweat. In fact, sometimes not exercising feels really good. For instance, when I happen by a marathon or other (what I consider) crazy running event, I can feel my mind and body bathed in endorphins with the pleasure I feel at not having to run.

At some points in my life exercise has actually made me feel worse. When I moved to Austin and had few friends, a job that made me cry and was recovering from a recent breakup, I felt like exercise would be my ticket to a healthier, happier outlook. Isn’t that what all the magazine articles tout? And isn’t that what everyone says when you’re feeling down? “You should go out and exercise!” For middle class, single women it sometimes feels as though the only thing between you and your life goals is a 5:30PM Iyengar yoga class.

It’s true that sometimes a brisk walk around Town Lake would kick start my mental inertia. I would round the corner to my house brimming full of half-written e-mails, a new home improvement project or funny memories of long distance friends. It must have been that adrenalin/endorphin cocktail that changed my outlook from “nothing’s probable” to “everything’s possible.” I’m sure if I talked on the phone to a friend with the blues on one of those days, I was preaching the exercise gospel.

But other days it was different. Midway through an aerobics class at the YMCA I would plunge deeper into my grayness rather than surge with optimism. It wasn’t just mental either – I felt a physical heaviness that no amount of jumping jacks or bubble gum Britney Spears could lift. This “wrong” response to exercise made me feel even worse about myself. It was beyond the immediate reaction to the class – I could just walk away from that – it hit at my self-esteem. Was my attitude that bad that it could counteract even the scientifically demonstrated positive effects of exercise? I don’t remember talking about this to anyone; I think I was mildly embarrassed about it. Patient, supportive friends have so few concrete tips to give, I didn’t want to reject their “go on a walk” encouragement by telling them about my factory defect.

Then, last February, I found out I’m not the only one who this happens to. On one of the rare internet days in my office in northwestern Nigeria, I was reading through the New York Times health section and saw one of Tara Parker-Pope’s blog posts: Phys Ed: Does Loneliness Reduce the Benefits of Exercise? In it she discusses a study where a researcher found that live-alone rats didn’t have the same neurogenesis – or brain fizzing, as she calls it – from exercise as rats in the dorms. Here’s how Parker-Pope described the study:

 …they divided young male rats into groups housed either in threes or singly and, after a week, gave half of them access to running wheels. All of these rats ran, but only the rats with cage mates experienced rapid and robust neurogenesis. Not until after weeks of running, long after the other socially engaged rats’ brains had sprouted plentiful new neurons and neural connections, did the lone rats start to produce brain cells. Social isolation had dramatically suppressed and slowed the process.

A follow up study found that it was worse for female rats. They think that the stress of isolation + the stress of physical exertion = too much stress. Close-knit social communities – like group living or living with a partner – provide a cushion for the cortisol surge (stress hormones) caused by exercise. When that’s not there, you can be left just with the stress. Yikes. As if being single isn’t bad enough. Of course the by-the-way at the end of the article is that studies also demonstrate that people in relationships are less likely to exercise. What a waste! They don’t even cash in on their value-plus recreation reactions…Freaking Catch-22.

Now I’m single again, but I’m feeling the lightness when I exercise. Why is it different this time? Many things. I don’t have a job that makes me cry (in fact, I have no job!), I have friends, and Austin feels much more like a home than it did in those early days. But I think the most important factor is that the women who are leading me in my Pilates path aren’t just instructors – they’re friends. I’m sure they wouldn’t be thrilled with my chronic disease metaphor, but I’m sticking with it, and sticking with them. And I think the researchers should take note: next time, see what happens when the single-bunk rats get to share the wheel.